Their green eyes peering once more from the void, and climbing all over us once again without any paws for thought, those pesky felines have colonised the traditional home of British light entertainment and turned the place into a hot tin roof for their own Jellicle ball, the night of self-justification and celebration on which they choose this year’s candidate for a tenth life beyond the Heaviside Layer.
The extraordinary thing about Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s joyous and indomitable vaudeville is that it still looks the same, still hasn’t dated and, as a brilliantly orchestrated dance piece, seems as sensationally dynamic, innovative and surprising as anything you might see at Sadler’s Wells.
Originally, the whole moggy rubbish dump heaved and revolved within a New London planetarium that conjured the scale and atmosphere of a Steven Spielberg space adventure. There were angles, and height and depth to the setting, that created a celestial cat’s cradle of a playground.
But the original production team of director Trevor Nunn, choreographer Gillian Lynne, designer John Napier, lighting designer David Hersey – supported by the veteran Cats associate Chrissie Cartwright – have come mighty close to reproducing that effect, with the still dominant proscenium of a very wide stage focussing much more on T S Eliot’s wonderful, playful poetry and on Lynne’s breathtakingly sexy and elegant ensemble dances.
There are several performers you simply can’t take your cats’ eyes off, not least Nicole Scherzinger‘s Grizabella, the slowed down, fading glamour cat who is haunting the convocation with her "Memory" (yes, miraculously, that song of lifts and lobbies can still sound fresh and new-minted); she’s an imposing, vampish presence, swathed in her tatterdemalion togs and making a lot from a little before she achieves vocal lift off (and one of those strangely irritating X-Factor style ovations in the middle of a musical phrase).
She is as good a Grizabella as I’ve seen, and I’ve seen Elaine Paige and Betty Buckley for starters. There are other lynchpin performances from Nicholas Pound as Old Deuteronomy (newcomers to the show might first wonder why they keep saying "it’s all due to Ron or me"), Cameron Ball as a literally electrifying Macavity, the Napoleon of crime, Zizi Strallen as Demeter (her aunt, Bonnie Langford, was in the first ever cast), Ross Finnie as an exceptional, joint-crushing Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, and stunningly lithe debutante Cassie Clare – she’s like Eartha Kitt inside Martha Graham — as Cassandra.
But these gems only shine on the dung heap of the ensemble, and it’s the danciest, dreamiest dung heap you’ve ever seen. John Napier’s tip is a fused metal art work of old cars, industrial piping, tin cans and detritus that spreads right across the first circle, with clouds scudding across the night sky beyond and Old D ascending with the chosen one on a giant tyre, a Michelin man tyre for the ages.
The great paradox of Lloyd Webber’s score is that it incorporates so many genres (music hall – Paul F Monaghan makes a great double of clubman Bustopher Jones and Gus the theatre cat – blues and Gilbertian point numbers) within an overall synchronised, and synthesized, sound system, with recurring motifs and sudden operatic flares, such as the battle of pekes and pollicles, and Gus’s Thames nightmare invasion of the Siamese warriors.
Rum Tum Tugger’s item has been ingeniously elaborated into a rap rhythm show-off number by Antoine Murray-Straughan, but then he’s topped by Joseph Poulton taking off as a technically adroit and magical Mr Mistoffelees. The preening, prancing side of cats is a feature of both dance and detailed gesture; cats are lone prowlers and fiercely independent creatures. It’s a final masterstroke of this enduring classic that their individuality is celebrated, then subsumed, in such gloriously democratic ensemble dance, shivering with cross-rhythmed variations and proud tribal defiance.